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The Korean art movement, Danasaekhwa, might not be a familiar modernist art term to many, compared to others such as Abstract Expressionism or Impressionism, but it is one of the most significant and radical movements to originate on the Korean Peninsula that continues to develop to this day.
Danasaekhwa began during the 1970s—post-World War II and Korean War turmoil—by a group of artists who felt an urgency to rethink how to approach their mediums during a moment of uncertainty and conflict. Rather than passively using paint or pencil to create recognizable compositions, these artists would make their works by ripping pages, soaking canvases, and dragging pencils or brushes to form radically abstract compositions, all while pushing the limits of what their materials could physically withstand.
Ha Chong-Hyun, one such artist from Danasaekwha, is credited as one of the leaders of this artistic collective, and has been honing his craft and perfecting his signature style of painting over the last 40 years. His current exhibition of new works at Tina Kim Gallery in New York is a testament to his physically and psychologically complex compositions and crucial role in developing and advancing Korean contemporary art on an international scale.
Ha is typically known for his use of muted paint colors, such as gray, white, blue, and brown, spread across canvases made of hemp and burlap. Rather than beginning with the front of each canvas, however, Ha starts by pushing the paints through the back, a technique referred to as bae-ap-bub, or “back pressure method.” This is most noticeable in works such as Conjunction 15-165, where there is a clear delineation of blue paint applied to the top of the canvas, spread methodically throughout with a palette knife, and much darker blue pigments that appear to have stained the canvas from behind.
Every painting in this exhibition is from the artist’s “Conjunction” series, a lifelong project he started in 1974. These works were made between 2002 and 2017 and incorporate a plethora of painterly actions Ha has employed over the last several decades. Each painting is filled with varying linear forms made with tactile globs of oil paint, turning these flat canvases into three-dimensional compositions that subtly permeate the exhibition space. His lines travel from top to bottom, side to side, either with several inch repeated incisions or one continuous action that spans an entire length of a canvas.
Though each composition is wholeheartedly abstract in nature, several works teeter between figuration and abstraction, demonstrating a newfound curiosity of the artist. For instance, Conjunction 16-355 looks like a cinematic close-up of waves in a stormy sea. Ha’s lines are less precise and overlap choppily, providing a more dramatic and eerie overall effect, turning this scene into a moment of dynamic action.
Another exciting discovery in this exhibition is the artist’s use of red, a new color that is “his brightest color to date,” according to the gallery. Though the vibrant red coloration provides a stark contrast to the earthy monochromatic compositions throughout the rest of the show, red seems like the perfect new color for Ha to experiment with. It is hard to see red without thinking of blood or flesh, which is no different here.
What is often lost on viewers of works by Danasaekwha artists is the anguish and turbulence that brought these artists to this new way of creating these compositions, namely war, loss and despair. These new red works bring those ideas to the forefront, visually suggesting a darker and more serious read of these seemingly calming and passive paintings.